What do the unemployed do all day?
At a time of record-level long-term unemployment, the question matters -- and not just for the jobless themselves. For one thing, if the unemployed aren't seen as using their time productively, it's harder to maintain political support for jobless benefits, which some have argued lately are too costly. For another, we can't accurately assess the damage done to the economy by having so many people out of work unless we know what else they're doing.
One study last year found that much of the extra time gets spent sleeping and watching TV--leading to news reports that the jobless "frittered away" their time. Another analysis--this one released in January and co-written by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who was announced Monday as the White House's pick to serve as the chief economic adviser to President Obama--pointed in the same direction. It found that people tend to devote fewer hours to job searches the longer they've been unemployed, and that sleep--especially "sleep in the morning hours"--increases as joblessness goes on. Together, the studies appeared to create a picture of the unemployed as lazy and unproductive.
But a sophisticated new analysis (pdf) complicates that picture. In a paper written for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Mark A. Aguiar, Erik Hurst, and Loukas Karabarbounis, using data from the American Time Use Survey, found that the jobless do spend about 30 percent of their extra time--the time they would otherwise have spent working--sleeping or watching TV, and another 20 percent on other leisure activities. But around 35 percent is spent doing unpaid but nonetheless important work, like child-care and housework. And other investments--things like education, health-care, and volunteer work --account for another 10 percent.
That jibes with what The Lookout found anecdotally when we asked readers who had been out of work for half a year or more to tell us about their experiences. Many described feelings of boredom, futility, and depression, leading to wasted hours in front of the TV or in bed. But plenty of readers told us about using the time more productively--whether by doing unpaid work, by bettering themselves, or by spending more time with their kids.
The notion advanced by some that jobless benefits are being used to support a life of leisure is, at best, simplistic.
But as Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, notes, there's a limit to how much useful unpaid work the jobless can do. "They lack the capital, land, tools and skills needed to flexibly shift from wage employment to production for their own use.," she writes. "Even when they can make a partial shift, their productivity is likely to be lower in unpaid work than paid work."
Folbre adds: "That's why involuntary unemployment represents such a waste of human capabilities and loss of productive output for the economy as a whole." That's true, it appears, however the jobless spend their time.